Monday, April 13, 2009

My Responses to A Survey of Public Understanding of Evolution

A Survey of Public Understanding of Evolution

>To the best of your understanding, and in your own words,
please explain what “evolution” means.

the word means to volute out of, that is for something to come (fly?) out of something. in our context it means where do the multitudinous forms of all of us critters come from? It looks like some kind of artwork after all. In Humanity's youth, the experience of our own minds was the most powerful presence around, the most surprising one at any rate. By Shakespeare's time certainly his mind was an example of the most detailed creative process we'd ever observed, or bothered to observe.

so the most logical answer to the question "were did all the forms we find on earth come from?" is: "something like a human mind"

Starting in the time of Galileo, we finally began looking, paying attention to, respecting, even, what was outside our minds. So that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries observations seemed to suggest that there was a deep geological history going on and that projecting current environmental processes backwards in time for 100s of millions of years could begin to explain the geological forms we found.

In this geological record we find different forms of critters (fossils). we find that over time, forms become extinct and new ones arise. we also find that some classes of forms transform from one to another as we go up in time. We also find that we don't find forms in earlier layers than the forms they depended on. I.e. we don't find fossil horses in layers before the earliest fossil fishes. We don't find honeybees in layers before there were flowers. Ecosystems change with the layers. ..till we get to the current age with... well, by darwin's time we had found maybe 100,000 different kinds of plants and animals and fungi and other oddities.

All this geology and biology stretches the imagination for what it means for something like a human mind, some being, to create all that, and in a small cozy amount of historical time.

Other clues were:

the odd placement of related or different species on islands. Marsupials in australia and south america. All those crazy finches on the galapagos islands...

the fact that organisms AREN'T so well designed after all. whales have miniscule hip bones in them, some snakes have leg bones in them, we've got an appendix that gives us trouble, giraffes have this crazy recurrent laryngeal nerve that starts out in the neck right below the head at the larynx and loops all the way down to pass under the aorta in the chest and comes all the way back up to enter the larynx..

The fact that under domestication organisms can be caused to vary quite a bit, like dogs, pigeons..

A clue from Adam Smith. Smith suggests that if every one pursued his own selfish economic means, the interactions in aggregate would even out, would buffet out to a stable economic system. (doesn't work for humans, who happen to be too intelligently, craetively INSANE for such a simple system to work)

And from John Malthus: populations increase exponentially and quickly outstrip the carrying capacity of the environment for them. this means that in every generation not all critters of any kind get to grow up and have offspring.

In fact there's gonna be competition between critters for having kids.

Do Darwin put this all together and came up with:

Offspring are mostly like their parents, but a little different too. And there's too many of these different offspring. Those that inherited differences that allow them to outcompete their cohorts and have more kids in a particular environment, will more likely pass on those differences to the next generation of offspring in that environment. various conditions will constrain this process to either weed out extraneous differences, or encourage the spread of these differences if the environment changes or subpopulations emigrate to new environments. extinctions happen, especially to critters of intermediate character that arent as able to compete as are the extremes, which are often more efficient at living in their particular environments.

Over time this will give the results we see in the fossil record. Sports which are seen in domestic breeding can continue to accumulate (look at the diversity of dogs or pigeons!) and ultimately result in new features.

Since Darwin we've learned a lot more. Founder effects excacerbate differences when small subpopulations leave large ones and immigrate to new environments, resulting in punctuation events in the fossil record.

mutations can occur which are neutral and accumulate that way. extinctions can be arbitrary bad luck of the draw, and large extinction events will wipe out MANY intermediate species, leaving fewer scattered species surviving that are more different than each other.

We've also realized that one of the most effective ways to have more kids is to COOPERATE with your neighbors and brothers and sisters instead of competing and thus we have wildly successful social species like wolves, ravens, penguins, honeybees and of course... ants. Oh yeah, maybe humans? well, we haven't even been around as long as wolves and how are we doing? time will tell.

And finally we learn that not all form comes from evolution, but the very clay that evolution gets to work with: molecular biology is fecund indeed and can produce much form by itself, from which natural selection can select. Finally this is all possible because of mathematics...

So Evolution means: The interactions between simple agents who can accumulate mutations, in large populations, over time, in complex changing environments, leads to the unpredictable extravagant creation of form that we see in the world today. And that form is so extravagant because the clay that evolution gets to sculpt with - molecular biology played on two dozen different peculiar elements - is fecund indeed thanks to geometry and mathematics.

see "complexity lab manual" for a discussion of the extravagance of this 'chemical clay' we got and how interactions between simple agents under flow of energy can lead to complex surprising subtle organization.

>If you accept the theory of evolution, please explain in your own words why; or if you do not accept the theory of evolution, please explain in your own words why not.

Ah... lets go over each of the hints:

Geology. how much have i observed? Actually i've never travelled enough to get a good sense of how rock strata patterns match up over large areas and allow you to build up a deep stratigraphical collumn of time. I've certainly seen some strata and fossils. Not MANY. Mostly i trust what i read in books, why? Hold on a few paragraphs.

I've certainly found fossils of critters no longer alive today, and certainly have found fossil beds of sea critters up on dry land.

I do have experience with the disparity and diversity of life out there. I've learned 500 different kinds of plants belonging to over a hundred different families in new york state. I've learned a dozen different Asters, 30 different kinds of grasses. once i took a walk and found 40 different kinds of mosses. I know of 22 different kinds of lichens and 22 different kinds of ants. I've met over 200 disparate forms of life like red algae, plasmodial slime molds, mushrooms, crustose lichens, waterbears, millipedes, honeybee colonies, deer, stentor, pine trees... I've found many kinds of rocks and minerals, and at museums... and books, yes i see that there are over 2000 different kinds of minerals that grow in maybe over 10,000 different forms and that there are easily over 10million different kinds of critters (mostly insects). and I've seen enough geological structures.

So where did it come from? no one i've ever experienced could sculpt all that. Makes no sense.

I do know what it is like to craft mechanisms, to come up with creative solutions to problems, to edit one's work and redesign it over and over again to optimise it. I've written complex computer programs, repaired automobiles, drawn pictures...

I've seen plenty of examples that organisms are NOT optimally designed (for what, anyway?) For instance infants at about 6mos are mentally ready to start learning to communicate with grammar. however their larynxes (dammed larynx stuff again!) are not yet ready for speach untill about 1 and a half years old. thus they remain frustrated for a year and cry a lot. That's poor design, or design ON THE MOVE, depending on how you look at it. I mean two different features are evolving at different paces!

Now recently in history, humans have developed a rather well publicized and world wide sign language for the deaf, and some mothers have started to sign with their infants. The infants love this and starting at 6 months they are less frustrated, cry less, and begin signing/talking earlier and better. this is biological and cultural evolution happening right befor our eyes.

I have bred kittens and guppies and have experience of the kind of variation that's possible in litters.

The point is that the diversity and disparity of life on Earth IS extravagant but not INFINITELY so. There appear to be constraints. Why are there no insects the size of wolves? why no mammals as small as insects? Why are the marsupials in australia and south america? why are there birds some of which are almost reminiscent of lions, some of which are reminiscent of honeybees, but not COMPLETLY so? They still seem to be stuck being birds. Hummingbirds seem to WANT to become honeybees, or at least the environment would select them to be.. yet none have transparent wings, etc...

If a creative mind crafted critters i would expect MORE inbetweens! and more disparity. 1.5million animal species found so far but .7million of them are beetles and they all fall into ONLY 30 basic groups. why not insects with 10 legs? why not crabs with 6 legs? why NO marine insects? Why only insects, mammals, reptiles learned to fly? Why do almost all land vertebrates have always 5 fingers or less? In fact just look at the panda! His ecological environment put selection pressure for an extra finger and look at the peculiar design it took to give him one. had to coopt some bones from other parts of the wrist to make one. Why is the creative process so constrained if not by descent with modification?

So do i really think that such simple interactions over long periods of time can result in such stark creations as all these different plants and animals? YES. I've studied much computer science, mathematics, something called cellular automata, even chemistry, and have the experience that simple systems can indeed give rise to surprising complexity. It takes a lot of study. I've begun summarizing that study in my "Complexity Lab Manual". You can find it by googling complexity lab, no quotes.

But what's the REAL explanation of why i accept evolutionary biology? Accept it AS WHAT?

For starters, I grew up with it. I grew up in the tradition of natural science. I grew up learning, experiencing concretely more details than are to be found in all of Shakespeare and the Bible put together. I grew up in a culture in the lower east side of manhattan that was multicultural, that was mostly a result of enlightenment Europe with a little rabbinic judaism thrown in. But i did not grow up in an isolated shtettle.

But it can't be only that. I certainly was exposed to religious culture, read tora, but... nah.. none of those adults made a big effort to come out and say what they thought god was, or really, why should i pray and be jewish.

Over the years I've met many such people both jewish, christian, buddhist, new age.. I have to admit that few if any of them have any real INTEREST in the details of critters and rocks and chemistry and mechanisms that i grew up with. See my review of Francis Collins biographical book. Sure, he can manage a molecular biology lab and talk the evolutionary biology lingo, even use the scientific method in limited domains of his work, maybe. But he came from a vastly different culture than i did, and seems to still belong to that CULTURE.

I mean i can easily slip into a religious culture and do fascinating theological exegesis and enter a poetic trance and pray with people... But it is not my home.

I've had my share of ecstatic experiences, but they were out in the fields and swamps and woods either being directly in contact with nature or meditating on its complex, subtle, richly textured details. I did not have them in church or synagogue.

The third thing about this scientific culture... sure, when i read books by scientists i feel at home with them... but it's more than just a heimishe feeling. The point is that anything these books report about the natural history that i HAVE had the opportunity to observe first hand, jives with my observations. The point is that these guys can also shoot the breeze about how to troubleshoot cars, design computers, algorithms... things that i have done. I have created computer systems and programs and fixed cars and other mechanisms. I have done chemistry and pottery and grown plants... and i do it by way of attitudes akin to the scientific method, not at all by way of prayer...

I fully admit that i do not react strongly to father figures, policemen, politicians, celebrities. Perhaps it is simply comes down to a quirk of personality. the complex interactions between bugs and plants, between mechanical parts, rocks and chemicals is to me MORE interesting than celebrity father figures.

On the other hand, my study of biology, ecology and human history suggest to me that our propensity to follow such celebrities has not led to our most endearing behaviors. Far from it: world wars, inquisitions, crusades... So in the balance i think that evolving ecosystems are much more creative, stable, harmonious, encouraging of human dignity than are systems created, ruled and judged by fatherkingpolicemancraftsmen

>How confident are you that you understand the scientific theory of evolution?

That i understand how life on earth evolves, or that i understand the current scientific understanding of it? oops that just changed as i typed this...

To the first question, i KNOW that there are things that i still don't understand at all, and that none of us do. That's all right in the scientific culture i live in. To the second question? I've studied it for 30 years or more, I suppose i understand it as well as any graduate student with a firm grasp of his studies. though because i've not had the oppurtunity to work out some details, i know i've got definite gaps.

And like i said there are major issues that i believe are unresolved.

>On the question of the origin and development of life and humans,
what do you believe?

that's four questions.

On the development of life, we've just been discussing that.

On the origins of humans... well, mostly the same as the origins of any other species. oh, by the way, can you define human? if not you can't discuss it's exact origins can you? The whole issue of species and origins is very subtle and messy. We don't have good answers right now. Did humanity result from a final mutation that caused a bifurcation in the dynamical system that was the behavior of the individual in which it happened in and thus in all her descendants?

Or did it result from bifurcation in properties of a whole population, which then went on to grow?

Or was there NO distinct origin of humanity in time on this Earth? most likely answer. I don't beleive you can define humanity, the only reason we are so distinct from every other critter we can see, is that the apes have always been rather flimsy low population critters frought with much extinction. The fossil record shows many variations over the last 5million years and at some times in the past there were as many as FIVE different kinds of 'apey human critters'. For that matter is a poor sot with the IQ of 40 a human? Is an idiot savant mathematical genius who can't even tie his own shoes or say hello, a human? how about a Homo or a Nigger? (I use these terms to point out that the definition of what is human is not so objective but influenced by strong emotions, especially when religion is involved)

Species are not fixed, they are moving targets. Thats one of the points of evolutionary biology.

Are humans different from other living critters in ways that no other critter is different than other critters? I've tried to argue this, but in the end i can come up with nothing that stands:

"what's so special about humans.txt"

On the development of humans, you mean that culture changes everything? but plenty of critters have culture... don't worry, humans are still evolving genetically.

The origin of life? Ah, my FAVORITE topic. What do i BELIEVE? Better, what am i excited about to explore for the rest of my life and vicariously for the rest of human history! It is true that currently we do NOT have a clue whether life as we know it is a reasonable extrapolation of what we know of geochemistry today. BUT:

Some of us have a very strong HUNCH and not because we've been told it is so, but becuase we've put in decades of study of the topics in complexity lab:

1) we are actively exploring all sorts of new chemistry experiments and finding more and more complex chemical reactions, more complex molecular structures that can form from scratch in the laboratory

2) we are exploring the very molecular structure of life, and taking apart some of the molecular systems that makes life go and seeing which subsystems can work alone, and how they work together, slowly finding the simplest systems that still have interesting complex properties of life.

3) we are exploring all kinds of mathematics and computer science that shows us that when you simple mechanisms interacting repeatedly with simple rules of interaction between their neighbors, complex patterns eventually come out, sometimes even in a process similar to the one darwin proposed for evolution of forms out of simple iinteractions between creatures.

4) It's not, dammit, so much as what i believe, it's that this is such exciting stuff, that i want to take part in this exploration and see what is possible. This exploration is only SIXTY years old or so, In the history of human civilization, it is brand new. Imagine what we will learn in the next 60 years? Aren't you excited.

Yes, my hunch is that within the next 60 years we will find out that life is a natural consequence of chemistry.

>rate myself on these scales:

>a fiscal/economic conservative -----a fiscal/economic liberal
don't know what it means, you need both conservative and experimental elements to run a stable creative society

>a social conservative ------a social liberal
still don't know what you mean, same answer.

>not very interested in science ------very interested in science
very interested in science

>not at all religious-------very religious
sometimes religious, mystical-poetic anyway

>Do you believe there is a God?
(a purposeful higher intelligence that created the universe)

"purposeful higher intelligence" higher than what? chihuahua? wait, is there even a single linear scale to intelligence? now what do we mean? I mean what do you, some catholics, some fundamentalist protestants, some new age hipsters, some hindus.... mean the same thing by this? The best i can do with your question is pick as concrete examples as i can:

did something like human intelligence create the universe? ummm... guess what? we don't even know what human intelligence is, how it works, and how it is a product of it's neuronal substrate. So can there be some kind of weird computer at the origin of the universe that's something like human intelligence that creaeted the laws of physics and flicked a switch...

you ask too silly, too general a question. why you switch from evolution of life to the whole universe? now you have broadened dangerously your question and open up a whole new can of worms.

i can certainly say that it does not seem to me that a human like intelligence created and maintains life on this earth. Also i don't see how such an entity could have sculpted this earth out of what universe stuff there was before.

now you want me to go back and discuss physics? I'm not very well versed in it.

i see no evidence of purpose in this universe though. you can see my discussion: How to Explore Whether the Universe Is a Loving God (Cosmological Anthropic Principle) on

Or another example: can the whole universe be a purposeful humanelike intelligence? We've hardly explored it have we? like i said we don't know how human intelligence works. Is it digital? is it a wave phenomenon? does it have quantum phenomena that are important? we simply do not know.

My suspicion is that the universe is not now interconnected enough to be thinking very fast. But way way back? since we see stars and galaxies are receeding from each other, maybe 10billion years ago or even very close to the big bang (whatever that is) the universe WAS interconnected enough to be intelligent?

You ask BIG questions.

>On average, when you were growing up, how often did you attend religious services?

pre-K to 3rd day, Hebrew day school. I hated school i don't recall religious services. afterwards, sometimes we did shabat services once a week. untill my bar mitzva at age 13. Then i was allowed to quit. STUPID strand of religion, eh?

>How often do you presently attend religious services?

now? rarely. every know and then i do weekly. for instance even zen practice twice a week or more. and there have been times when practiced religous ritual much more often, meditation, acts of appreciating this glorious life, standing with sunset, eating a meal... These days i am not very religious. but that's a rather personal question.

>Current religious organization membership:

Membership? funny word! Judaism, 'am yisro'el is my family. a particular local unit community that i attend functions at regularly? no.

>What is your highest level of education?

1 semester of graduate biology. But of course i am always studying new things outside of school, very high level.

>Gender M
>Age 46

African Jewish Eastern European European Enlightenment Brittish Naturalist Scientist Native American Lower East Side New Yorker.

You didn't want to define what you meant by ethnicity did you? i mean, "white" is a stupid term. i don't think "caucasian" is much more accurate either! Neither would solely jewish be accurate.

>What is your country of residence?
gave it. New York City. currently in exile upstate. New York City is NOT American.


Leah said...

Ahh, this survey proved to be a useful too to write some pretty cool stuff. So, i want to know who was asking this "Survey of Public Understanding of Evolution" anyway... huh? tell us.

barry goldman said...

don' remember, i could look it up..